If you’ve used the internet you've most likely left some kind of digital footprint behind, but it's the one you leave while driving that's helping law enforcement solve crimes.
“[Car systems] can store everything from GPS information, navigation data such as saved destinations, previous destinations; you can tell what phones have been connected to them. They record things like doors opening and closing and gear shifts and whether the headlights were on or off. Things that can really help law enforcement figure out what happened before, during, and after a crime, said Ben LeMere of Berla Corporation, a company in Millersville, Md. specializing in automotive cyber-security.
Their first product was designed to download data from external GPS systems, but as cars became more advanced so did their technology.
“What we found out was basically GPS data is present in modern-day vehicles but there's so much more data as well,” said LeMere.
They then developed new products that can extract the data then decode it. The new technology hit the market in 2013 and is only available to law-enforcement agencies.
“The target market has always been to help law enforcement, to be able to give them a tool that no one else has and be able to pull data out that they traditionally wouldn't have access to,” LeMere said.
He’s also dedicated resources and his technology to assist the Anne Arundel County Police Department with major case investigations.
“Particularly homicides, robberies, crimes of violence, but also auto theft, and various property crimes. With Berla's ability we're able to get a hold of those vehicles and then find out not only where they've been but when they were on, what they were doing and that has been extremely advantageous to our investigations,” said Sgt. John Poole, with the Anne Arundel County Police Department Homicide Unit.
Poole said the data has been key in helping to establish timelines and presenting the evidence in court.
“We have that data and we compare it to our witness interviews, we compare it to our physical evidence, we compare it to your circumstantial evidence it really can be that last puzzle-piece that we need to close a case,” Sgt. Poole said.
But as resourceful as it can be, it's also personal data that can raise concerns about privacy. However, LeMere stressed that the data is not easily accessible, not even to the car’s manufacturer’s.
“It's not a simple process, it's a tool that only law enforcement has. If you go to the dealership and you say ‘hey, I'd like to pull all of my previous destinations or saved locations, and transfer them to my new car that I just bought, they can't do that,” LeMere said.
Police must also obtain the proper permissions before downloading the information from a vehicle involved in a crime.
“We always follow whatever we need to do, a search warrant, a subpoena, a court order. In several occasions we've had to go to the actual manufacturer with the help of Berla and serve them with paperwork as well so they aid us with accessing the computers and data in there,” Sgt. Poole said.
The amount of information also depends on the car model. LeMere said newer cars collect more information while older vehicles are less likely to have those capabilities.
“Sometimes you're talking weeks, months, years worth of data, it just really depends on the vehicle and the systems that are installed,” he said.
As car technology continues to evolve, Sergeant Poole said this tool will become a vital resource for all police department's in the future.
"It's going to be absolutely necessary, it's going to be imperative that we have this resource at our disposal. We are kind of at the forefront of this. We work very well with our neighboring jurisdictions and when they hear of the capabilities that we have through Berla, they're very jealous," he said.
"If you look at the average age of a car in a crime for example, that's around about 2007, 2008, so as we're adding modern-day vehicles, 2010, 2011, 2012 those cars will be on the road until 2030 something around there, so it's good that we're starting now and beginning to build a really good base. The longer those cars are on the road, the better we can support the law enforcement community," LeMere said.
Berla reportedly has thousands of law enforcement clients from local, state, federal, and even some international agencies. Their product originally supported 80 car models but has since grown to over 4,600 car models.